The horrific bus accident that took place on Interstate 40 between Knoxville and the North Carolina / Tennessee border gives rise to lots of questions. The media has indicated that a bus tire failed, resulting is a loss of control that in turn resulted in the bus going through a wire median barrier and into oncoming traffic. The bus then collided with an SUV and a tractor trailer.
One question that will be explored is whether the wire median barrier should have prevented the bus from going into oncoming traffic. Wire median barriers, also called cable barriers or safety cable barriers, are installed in medians. The cables are installed on metal posts. The barriers are intended to stop, slow down or redirect vehicles which strike them.
Safety barriers are tested in accordance with National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report No. 350.
Whether the failure of the cable barrier system to prevent the bus from crossing the median and going into oncoming traffic has any legal consequences for anyone will depend on facts not yet available to the general public. The design and actual installation of the system will need to be fully explored. Part of that investigation will also include the weight and speed of the bus, the angle of impact between the bus and the cables, and other factors.
Also important are answers to what lawyers call the "causation question." Almost certainly, the SUV and tractor trailer would have escaped impact it the cable barrier system had stopped the bus from going into oncoming traffic. (Note: I am not suggesting that the there is a problem with that system – I simply don’t have enough information. However, there is no doubt that the bus went through the barriers and into oncoming traffic.) Thus, if there is a problem with the barrier system the family of the person who died in the SUV and the persons in the SUV and tractor trailer who were injured will need to explore the issue of whether an appropriate barrier system would have prevented the collision if they decide to seek wrongful death damages or personal injury damages.
The occupants on the bus have a different and more complicated question on this point. Something was going to happen when the bus left the road and went toward the median. The issue of whether the failure of the cable system had anything to do with causing injuries and death for the bus occupants raises significant issues that will involve accident reconstruction and bio-mechanics.
Thus, at the end of the day, the mere fact that the cable system did not restrain the bus does not tell us much at all about whether any legal liability arises against the manufacturer, designer, installer or inspector of that system. Rather, expert testimony will be required to understand the mode of failure, the presence or absence of a defect or error, and the impact any defect or error actually had on those who lost their lives or were injured.